1970-1978 Mazda RX-2 / Capella Rotary Reviews
Road Test: 1972 Mazda RX-2 With or Without Rotary Power, This Car is Ergonomic Perfection From the November, 1972 issue of Motor Trend By Steve Smith
Editor's Note: This year, Mazda celebrates its 90th anniversary and along with an extensive retrospective coming on May 20, we've gone through the archives to bring you a look at several classic Mazdas from the 70s and 80s.
Forget -- for the moment -- that Mazda's RX-2 is powered by a rotary engine. From a driver's viewpoint (although not from an owner's), the revolutionary powerplant is one of the least significant aspects of this remarkable car.
The point is -- and we're deliberately emphasizing it by testing the plain vanilla 4-door sedan, rather than the cuter, less practical coupe - that the RX-2 would be a first-rate automobile even if a perfectly ordinary engine lurked beneath its phony hood louvers.
It was our recent misfortune to drive a small foreign car (not a Mazda) that was an ergonomic disaster. Ergonomics: the science of bio-mechanics, the art of designing things like switches, shovels, and jalousie windows -- manually operated devices that ought to work without breaking your back or your fingernails.
The car in question (nameless, to protect our lifeblood -- advertising revenue) was an assault on sense and sensibility. None of the controls were where you'd logically expect to find them, none worked with as much (or as little) effort as you might reasonably suspect, none had quite the degree of effect you might hopefully predict.
The list of its faults is endless -- an object lesson in How Not to Design an Automobile. To get into reverse, for example, you had to plunge the shift lever deep into the front seat upholstery. An herculean effort was necessary to maintain steering angle with the throttle open. The function symbols were unintelligible (we wondered why the "protractor" light was lit until smoke poured from the rear wheels; the "protractor" was a crude pictograph of the handbrake lever). The steering wheel and foot pedals were at odd angles to each other...and to the driver. The doors required enormous expenditures of energy to push past the hold-open detent. The clutch was deceptively light and the brakes touch. Nothing, as Road & Track might say, fell easily to hand. Even the instruments were unreadable - too much distortion in the transparent D-cup falsies with the gold nipples over the gauges.
Don't bother asking us which car this was; we'll never tell. The important thing is that it wasn't the Mazda...that the Mazda displayed none of these faults...indeed, that it corrects all of them...a major reason why we love the RX-2.
With the Mazda, everything - without exception - works. Consider a typical get-in-and-drive sequence. The key fits easily in the door lock. The door handles, inside and out, fit the hand and operate with a light touch. The door pull/armrest is at least placed where it doesn't get in the way, and inside the door lock is placed on the forward third of the window sill, not awkwardly back over your shoulder. You don't have to manhandle the door past its stay to open or to close it, yet it will stay open even on a steep hill. The door opening is wide enough to get in and out without bashing, banging or contortions.
The driving position is excellent, chair height and all business, reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz (although, unlike the Mercedes, the seat padding is not quite firm enough and not quite thick enough). The fore-and-aft seat adjustment isn't buried where you can't find it; the seat slides back and forth without a lot of body English. The seat back angle is infinitely adjustable, and there's a return spring, so you don't have to operate the lever with one hand while frantically clawing around behind you to pull the seat back up with the other. There is plenty of room in front for people over six feet tall, but your back seat passengers had best be little ones. Likewise, the trunk space is more appropriates for two people on a long trip than four.
The ignition key operates without the hang-ups and extra motions common to many steering lock/ignition switch combinations. The courtesy light is mounted in the center of the roof, where anyone in the car can get at it and use it.
The controls are grouped logically and within easy reach, yet nothing is so close as to induce claustrophobia. The heating/defrosting/ventilating controls, for example, are intelligently placed and their markings easy to decipher. The foot pedals, for another, are full-sized and well spaced, with a comfortable foot rest for the left foot. Even the window winders are slick -- neither the grunt-and-groan of churning ice cream nor a million ineffectual turns lock-to-lock.
The gearshift is as precise as a straightedge, and while the reverse detent is positive enough to let you know its there, it requires only a gentle tug to overcome. Clutch, brake and throttle pressure are moderate.
The only flaw in this ergonomic wonderland is the steering effort -- it's a touch heavy at parking speeds (0-5 mph), probably due to its radial-ply tires (165-13 Bridgestones on narrowish 4.5-inch rims are standard equipment). At anything above city speeds (5-35 mph), the steering lightens up to match the input energies required by the other controls.
The piece de resistance, ergonomics-wise, is a single stalk convenientiy located a finger's reach away from the upper left steering wheel spoke. It operates (1) the turn signals, (2) the headlight flasher, (3) the headlight dimmer, (4) the 2-speed windshield Wipers, and (5) the windshield washers...and it does it better than the similar "everything stalk" in a Mercedes.
The perfect car? Not quite...but close. The Mazda's suspension is willowy (in ride comfort somewhere between a Saab 99 and a Mercedes 250), and, combined with an unfashionably narrow track (51.0/50.0 front/rear; compare with the Pinto's 55.0/55.0), does nothing to invite fast driving on tight turns. Try it and the front tires scrub uncomfortably toward the outside of the corner. A rear anti-sway bar would go a long way toward bringing the handling to a neutral-steer characteristic.
Picayune point; do-it-yourself fix: The steering wheel rim is too thin for our tastes. For less than ten bucks, you can buy one of those lace-on, leather covers. Which brings us to the car's least desirable feature, albeit a purely subjective one. Styling...or the lack of it. It's a mystery to us why Japan's cars look more and more like Detroit models of the late Fifties/early Sixties -- the very stylistic excesses of which were a major factor in attracting a substantial percentage of the car-buying public to the more honest-looking Japanese cars in the tirst place. By our lights, styling is where the RX-2 comes undone. The interior styling (one owner said her sole complaint was the little stylized button in the center of each seat back) is at least subservient to function, but the integrity of the sheet metal is pummeled again and again by such trivia as an overabundance of nameplates, chrome geegaws and model identification, and such jejune gimcrackery as power bulges and simulated hood louvers. Of course, we've run into many RX-2 owners who either like the styling or are willing to put up with it to get at all the other good things the car offers.
Like the lillie touches. Everything from front disc brakes, a locking gas cap, and an oil cooler to an electrically heated rear window demister, an electric dash clock, and a very necessary tachometer is standard equipment. About the only options offered are a radio ($52 for a pretty good AM model; $93 for an AM/FM; $10 for a sybaritic power antenna) and air conditioning ($345 for a factory unit; $279 for a dealer-installed Mk. IV-brand).
The interior is very nicely detailed and beautifully finished. There are grab handles over each of the doors (except the driver's), useful for assisting entry/exit as well as something to cling to in the event that a maniac takes the wheel. There's a full-width parcel tray beneath the dashboard (not so low as to rob foot room), a locking glove box, and another tray in the center console. The only declasse note in the whole interior is a lace-up boot over the root of the emergency brake -- it looks like it was made up in an arts and crafts shop.
Structurally, the Mazda is a brick. No rattles, squeaks, or body noises. The working of the suspension is well muffled, but you don't feel isolated from what's going on down there where, uh, the rubber meets the road. There are, however, a few odd sounds from odd places. The Mazda has no vent windows, and the flow-through fresh airducts, while they deliver a hurricane of air, also pipe in a bit of engine noise -- about the oniy time you ever hear the engine in operation. (Our test car exhibited some gear whine, but at such a low sound level that you probably couldn't hear it if the car had a conventional engine.) And there is a curious collection of electric-switch noises -- you can hear the brake-light switch click when you hit the brake pedal, another click when you depress the clutch, and a single loud CLACK! when you first operate the turn signal.
Everybody has commented on the fact that Mazdas backfire like a Magnum Nitro Elephant Express gunshot blast, particularly when you take your foot off the gas after a hard run in second gear. The problem has nothing to do with the engine; it's in its emissions control apparatus. The noise is especially annoying because it's so startling loud.
Ready for the good stuff about the engine? Its virtues and drawbacks are pretty well known by now, but to recapitulate: the Mazda rotary develops an awful lot of power and burns an awful lot of gasoline.
The power comes on easily. It's not one of those engines that have to be nursed along like a sick mule unless you're driving flat out. It starts easily and runs quietly, and you can tool lazily around all day never turning it more than 4000 rpm, just like any other mild-mannered piece of family transportation. But when you need the fire of Zeus, you just put your foot in it all the way, hold it there to its 6500-rpm redline, and you can suck the doors off anything not specifically built for setting drag strips on fire. (Moreover, it has as much punch at 60 as it does at 30.) The RX-2 can, for example, make mincemeat of a BMW 2002, one of the fastest sports sedans made. And the Mazda rotary revs willingly, so eagerly -- the higher it goes, the stronger it feels -- you really do have to watch the tach, or you could find yourself at 10,000 rpm. It will go that high, say Mazda enthusiasts, but it ought to reduce rotor seal life to 5 miles or 5 minutes, whichever shall expire first.
With the power comes...silence. You just plain don't hear the engine except at full throttle, (when it kind of moans, like Hawkeye's imitation of Hot Lips Hoolihan in "M*A*S*H"). And oh the smoothness. The engine jiggles around a little at idle, but pulls like the proverbial locomotive from anything over 1500 rpm, even in high gear. "Turbine-i1ke," is the way it's usuaily described, but turbine whines and the Mazda doesn't.
The only transmission available until December 1 is the 4-speed manual of our test car. Shifting, as noted, is easy (except for a tendency to graunch going into second gear if you shift too fast). Howeever, there is an almost British gap between second and and third. After December 1, a 3-speed torque converter automatic transmission will become available, a joint engineering effort by Toyo Kogyo (Mazda's makers), Ford, and Datsun's parent company, Nissan. It's the same unit available already in the Datsun 240Z sports car, and while the automatic will eat into the RX-2's surplus of performance, it ought to be worth the few hundred extra dollars in terms of convenience. Nobody except car magazine readers and tractor salesmen like stick shifts anyway.
The bad part, fuel economy: it's rotten, about 18 miles per gallon. (Happily, the Mazda doesn't care a fig for high-test. It prefers no- or low-lead, but will run on the worst stuff in the world, including -- but definitely not recommended -- kerosene.) If you think of it in terms of the Mazda's acceleration times, 18 mpg isn't so bad. Just consider the big V-8s it would take to beat it. But when you think in terms of efficient little foreign cars, you feel a little cheated. Some RX-2 owners have reported as low as 12 mpg (obviously in need of a tune-up) and as high as 22 mpg (Which would be stretching it). Oil consumption isn't too great, either. About a quart every 800-900 miles, with reports from 750 to maybe 1500 miles per quart.
Cheer up, ecology freaks. The Mazda rotary very nearly meets the strict '75 Federal emissions specifications as is. The engine isn't as clean as some rotary boosters would have you believe, but the only other thing as close right now is a Mercedes-Benz Diesel.
"Japan's Mercedes-Benz" is in fact what one automotive expert calls Mazda. Like Mercedes' parent company Daimler-Benz, Mazda's Toyo Kogyo is a relatively small, engineering-dominated firm. Like Daimler-Benz, Toyo Kogyo also makes trucks. And like Mercedes, Mazda makes cars utterly conventional in layout and dowdy in styling that fairly bristle with technological innovation and attention to detail.
Mazda was the first automaker to sign a licensing agreement with NSU/Wankel, the original rotary patent holders, in 1961. Mazda has been producing rotary-engined cars since 1967, having sold a quarter-million such cars in 80 countries to date.
Mazda's U.S. distribution has been limited to the West Coast and the South, but as of December 1, the operation will go nationwide with the opening of East Coast and Midwest dealers. A U.S. sales figure for 1972 of 60,000 is projected.
In the tough, competitive California market, Mazda jumped to fourth among import sales within six months of its introduction. The current best-seller in Mazda's model line-up is the RX-3 wagon, the world's only rotary-powered station wagon.
Mazda dealers offer a total of nine models, with both conventional and rotary powerplants, including a mini pickup truck, all at list prices of under $3100, of which the $3095 RX-2 Coupe is the most expensive. (The 4-door sedan is $45 cheaper.)
If the RX-2 is any indication of things to come, someday maybe we'll be referring to Mercedes-Benz as "Germany's Mazda."